Tenby is my new favourite town. I mean it. I’ve never experienced anything quite like Ironman Wales. What an epic day, filled with pain and cheering, sweat and hollering, aching legs and ‘high-five-for-power’ boards, a few dark moments and countless moment of delight. And Tenby was the shouting, cheering, beating heart of it all.
My wife and kids came down with me for the weekend. We arrived later Friday evening, so Saturday was a bit frazzled––registration, briefing, checking and bagging my kit, racking bike and bags, then watching my son smash Ironkids (6th place, sprint finish, top lad!). After that we chilled a bit, with a nice meal and a glass of wine to try and ease me to sleep. And … I did sleep! Only 3 or 4 hours, perhaps, but that 4:30 alarm call didn’t fill me with despair. In fact, I was excited! This being my third iron-distance race helped, but also the idea of racing one of the most epic, famous, and tough Ironman courses in the world. I was one of 18 members of my splendid tri club the NEWTs (Newport and East Wales Triathlon) racing, so I knew there was going to be a massive support contingent there too.
I ate breakfast and got ready, then walked down to transition on my own. I felt good. There were some troubled faces around, but though I had a few butterflies, I couldn’t wait to hit the beach and get going. The atmosphere in transition was electric, and I saw a few mates and made a few more. I was already getting the feeling that this was going to be a fantastic day.
The walk down to the beach was great fun. The early morning streets were thronged with people, and I saw a few NEWT mates already cheering us on. I mean, we were easy to see… I was the one in the black wetsuit and white hat.
Once we were hanging our shoe bags for the run back up from the beach to T1, the whole ‘self-seeding’ thing went in the bin, and I found myself down on the beach pretty near the front. I’d placed myself in the 1:20 pen, but was hoping for quicker, so I wasn’t too troubled. Saw some more NEWT mates on the paths and steps above the beach … and what a wait that was. A beautiful sunrise bled across the horizon. Thousands of people lined the cliffs and roads above. And when the Welsh national anthem began, it was a really spine-tingling moment. Got a speck of sand in my eye, I reckon. Then AC/DC’s Thunderstruck blasted the speck away, and we were off.
Those first couple of hundred metres swimming were fine, not too much bumping and punching because of the rolling start, and soon I fell into a rhythm. The first buoy, however, was a real rumble, with scores of swimmers trying to get around at the same time. A few bumps and kicks here, and then I was pushed down the side of the buoy, forced underneath. That was my first mouthful of sea water. Admission: I’d not done much sea training, so that sea water was burning my throat and making me gag. Especially when it was supplemented with a nice dose of fuel from the boats and jet-skis.
Lap one done, and I was feeling good. I’m always more comfortable on lap two, but by the first buoy I was keen to get it over with. And then … The Jellyfish. Anyone who saw that leviathan at the first buoy on lap 2 will know what I’m on about. Sure, I’d seen a few before. But compared to this, they were like sparrows sitting beside a buzzard. It was a bloody monster. You’ve seen Jurassic Park, right? Or The Blob? This was bigger. More stings. And the first thing I knew was when I punched that bastard in the head.
Could be a contributory factor to my 1:10 pb swim!
I was a bit wobbly up the ramps, then I found my feet and started the run into town. And this was when I began to realise just what the legendary Ironman Wales support is all about. There were thousands of people lining those streets, cheering and screaming, and I ran that 1k run from beach to transition grinning like a hyena in a Beefeater. Especially when I saw my lovely wife and kids cheering me on!
T1 went smoothly, then I was out on the bike course. This was the bit I was nervous about. It’s a legendary ride, with 8,000 feet of climbing over the 112 miles, and although I’d ridden the course three years before during Long Course Weekend, I hadn’t been there since. I’m lucky where I live in Monmouthshire––out the door on the bike and there’s a hill in every direction. Sometimes I’m happy about that, because it’s great training. Sometimes … you know, I just want a bit of flat.
But I needn’t have worried. I settled into the ride quite comfortably, taking on some food and drink and an occasional Saltstick tab to prevent cramping. I was carrying ‘real’ food … homemade flapjacks, ham and cheese wraps, Jelly Babies, and I took bananas at most feed stations, too. Then on a narrow lane out towards Angle a motorbike marshal gave me a blue card for overtaking in a supposed no overtaking zone. So, more about this later…
I worried about the penalty for a while, and vowed that I’d be extra careful with the rest of my race. Didn’t want to pick up more penalties and get DQ’d! I saw plenty of drafting, and sometimes it was just impossible to maintain those distances. But I was cautious––no peeing in public, observing drafting zones, and the bike went well. The course was challenging but beautiful, the hills were fun, and I realised how all that hilly training was paying off. While I’m not exactly Wigginsish on the flat, I often overtook riders going uphill. Some people were even pushing up Wiseman’s Bridge the first time, but though I found the route tough, it was also a really enjoyable ride.
And the support was utterly immense. The towns and villages were thronged with people, lining the streets and sitting outside houses, firing up barbecues and drinking some very tempting cups of tea. I saw a few nasty crashes, a few mechanicals, but overall the race was pretty smooth. Then I passed Tenby and Kiln Park, and there was NEWT Hill. If you’re a NEWT, you’ll know how that short, steep stretch lined with yellow-clad club members and families provides an injection of pure power that launches you on the next 20 miles. If you’re not a NEWT, you’re still cheered and hollered up that hill. It was amazing, and seeing my clubmates and family gave me a massive, massive boost.
The second lap, and that final 40 miles, was tougher. Someone had gone around and made the hills steeper. At the top of Wiseman’s the second time I met Jon, a guy I’d met at the top of a horrible steep hill in the Titan triathlon a couple of months before. Hill buddies! I finally rolled into Tenby and T2, and went to the penalty tent and served my 5 minute penalty. While I was there with the penalty guy the Race Ref turned up, and the three of us chatted about what a tough job they have. They said how unpleasant it is having to DQ people. Hmmm. More on that soon, too…
Onto the run! And this first little jog through Tenby was a noisy, rowdy delight. Cheeks aching from smiling, I made the first hilly lap out to New Hedges and back into town. I saw Mark, an old friend I’d bumped into the day before who I hadn’t seen for almost twenty years, and that was nice. Then running around one of the quieter backstreets bits of Tenby (and there aren’t many of them), my family were waiting outside our apartment. Our friends the Coopers were there too, they’d come all the way to Tenby for the day to support––good mates, eh? That was a great moment.
I saw Mark again once or twice through Tenby, he must have been one of the fastest runners there that day, darting back and forth through town to catch me two or three times per lap!
Lap two was harder. Loads more support, some getting steadily more drunk in town, and I made a cheeky diversion towards the finisher’s chute before veering away again. Saw my family and the Coops again, and loads of NEWTS, and a few other mates in the crowd.
Everyone has a dark time during an Ironman. Mine was lap 3 of the run. I was hurting, my legs were weak, and however much I drank I felt dehydrated, water swilling around in my stomach and making me feel queasy. Seeing some friends on the run helped––some of the other NEWTs racing, Jeff Johnson from the USA, my hill-buddy Jon, and others.
I saw everyone again back through Tenby, and the town was alight now, darkness had fallen and the whole place was illuminated. It was ablaze with a staggering amount of support, on fire with good cheer, and this was it, this was me heading back down and towards the finish line. That was a real moment. The crowd cheered, I heard that wonderful, “Tim, you are an Ironman!” and then I saw my wife and kids right next to the finish. I gave my wife a hug and kiss and my legs went. Desperate not to resort to ‘the crawl’, I shoved myself from the hoardings and crossed the line. Arms up. Cheeks hurting from smiling.
Ironman Wales, done. Swim 1:10, bike 7:15, run a tough 4:50. With transitions (and penalty) a total of 13:45. I’m no racing snake, but my target had been 14 hours, so I was a very happy man. And yes, of course, I’m already thinking how I could probably go sub-13 if I work hard to improve my run…
Back at our apartment on one of the quieter streets, we cheered on the runners from the balcony, and I even managed a curry and a couple of beers. I was high as a kite and exhausted, aching and sore, and I felt bloody wonderful.
(A brief aside, and a low point … on the Monday I discovered I’d been DQ’d. It took ten days to clear it, and I now have my time reinstated. Turns out they didn’t record me taking my penalty, so they DQ’d me for that. It also turns out I should have never been given that penalty in the first place, so it was a double error. I’m so glad that they scrapped it, but it wasn’t a nice few days).
This was my third Ironman, but definitely the best. The support in Tenby is beyond description … you really have to experience it to understand. The whole town devotes itself to the race, and I heard at the briefing that 1% of all residents actually races. It’s quite evident that the other 99% commit themselves to supporting every single athlete.
It was one of my best days ever, made even more epic by the friends and supporters who went down to cheer us on. There was some great racing by the NEWTS, including Linda Spillane, an age group winner! A special shout-out to my old mate Mark (who seemed to be everywhere in Tenby!), my friends the Coops, all the NEWTS and other guys I know from triathlon who screamed my name just when I needed it, and especially to my lovely wife and kids. They were on the beach at 6:30am, at the finish line at 9pm, and at every point in between. They’re wonderful.